Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Nightclub fire - República Cromañón 2004

This week’s nightclub fire in Brazil, in which 231 people lost their lives, is being mourned throughout the South American country while officials attempt to discover the causes of the fire. Initial reports suggest that it started when a member of the band playing at the Kiss Club in Santa Maria lit a flare on stage. Issues with the fire safety certificate and blocked fire exits may have contributed to the scale of the disaster. It is all an awful reminder of the República Cromañón nightclub fire in Buenos Aires in 2004 which killed 194 in very similar circumstances.

Until Brazil, the fire at the República Cromañón nightclub in the Once neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, was the fourth deadliest in the world. 

The incident occurred on the night of 30 December, 2004 while the rock band, Callejeros, was performing for over 4,000 spectators. The group had enjoyed three years of fame in Argentina and had just released their third album, Rocanroles sin destino. They had also played at the República Cromañón on 12 April of that year during the official opening of the club located on Calle Bartolomé Mitre.

Argentine rock acts, commonly known as rock chabón or rock rolinga, often used pyrotechnics as part of their shows, or at least encouraged spectators to do so. This end-of-year performance was no exception, despite being indoors.

Just before 11pm, a firework was set off on stage.  A hanging plastic net instantly caught fire and foam in the ceiling was soon ablaze. Wood and Styrofoam decorations in the club and other flammable parts of the venue, which reportedly included teddy bear stuffing (as a cheap alternative to wool fibre) meant the fire spread rapidly, producing lethal toxic gases.

Evacuation started quickly. But the club, which was legally permitted to hold 1,031 people, was over capacity. In fact, 3,500 tickets had been sold prior to the event and it is estimated that a further 1,000 entered on the night.   

Perhaps most scandalously however, was the fact that some emergency exit doors were padlocked from the outside to stop people getting in without paying, and thus prevented many from getting out of the building.

194 people died.  Most were victims of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide inhalation.  

Omar Chabán
The club’s owner, local businessman and music promoter, Omar Chabán, was immediately arrested. 

It soon transpired that the República Cromañón’s fire safety certificate had expired a month earlier and the club should have been closed by the superintendent of the Fire department.  Furthermore, of the fifteen fire extinguishers at the venue, ten did not work properly. 

How did the club get away with this?


On the night of 30 December, as on other show nights, a police official was paid to provide security on the door and to ignore any irregularities in capacity, alcohol sales, obstruction of emergency exits and use of fireworks.  Basically ignore everything that contributed to the deaths of 194 young people.  (During Callejeros’ performances, the figure of 300 pesos per day is reportedly what Omar Chabán’s associate, Raúl Villareal, paid police sub-commissioner Carlos Rubén Díaz on behalf of his boss).

For not properly enforcing the law, with respects to the fire safety certificate and the police department, the city’s public officials were considered guilty.

The Mayor of Buenos Aires, Aníbal Ibarra, was blamed by many of the victims’ families and despite reorganising the city’s security and emergency administration, he was eventually forced out of office by an impeachment jury, set up by a commission of the Buenos Aires Legislature.

Others however, faced criminal proceedings.

Ex mayor, Aníbal Ibarra
The owner of República Cromañón, Omar Chabán, who was detained hours after the incident at one of his houses, was freed five months later.  He moved in with his mother in San Martin but was subject to protests and abuse. He then spent two years in Marcos Paz prison before his release in December in 2007.

In October 2012 however, he was convicted of fraudulence which led to death and was sent to prison for ten years and nine months.

Various public officers and police officials were also eventually prosecuted for bribery. Ex sub-commissioner Carlos Rubén Díaz was given eight years, while ex control secretary of the Buenos Aires city government, Fabiana Fizbin got four years,.

As for Callejeros, who lost family members in the tragedy; they didn’t play again until 2006 and were often pursued by many who held them responsable. By October 2012, they could no longer escape prosecution and were each sentenced to seven years in prison. 

The deadly consequences of the fire at República Cromañón were unfortunately in part due to two common aspects of Argentine culture - corruption and not enforcing the law. After the fire, in what came to be known as el efecto Cromañón, many clubs throughout Argentina were closed for not complying with the law. A tragic story of 'if only.'

Shoes hang in tribute to the victims of República Cromañón


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